Fear about career prospects and security is spreading like an epidemic among the younger and older generations. What can we do to change the culture of work in Australia?
When I left school in 1974 there was full employment. I was aware of little anxiety around the HSC at both my school – admittedly a fairly laid-back comprehensive public one – and in my family. My parents never hassled me about school or homework. It was my responsibility to do it, or not. The school didn’t hassle us, either: they offered us the chance to learn, but whether we did or not was up to us.
I passed in spite of this appalling neglect and went to Macquarie University to do a straight BA majoring in English Literature. I had vague hopes of getting into advertising. My friends similarly went to uni or tech. Some went straight into jobs. It being the era of the hippie, some drove Volkswagen Kombi vans up the coast and surfed. I don’t know how they supported themselves – a combination of selling marijuana and the dole, I suppose.
What I remember most was how relaxed we all were. (Admittedly, this may have had something to do with all that marijuana.) My boyfriend (now husband) worked in a variety of jobs from petrol-station attendant to council worker, despite – or perhaps because of – his expensive private-school education. Eventually, when he got bored, he got himself a reps job at Cadbury Schweppes and began rising through the ranks. The jobs were there, if and when we wanted them.
Little did we realise we were the lucky tail-enders of the baby boom. My sister, who is eighteen months younger than I am, enjoyed the same relatively easy ride. She trained as a history teacher but got a junior job at 3M, which made among other things Scotch-Brite, and then moved into publishing when she got bored with the world of sticky tape.
Ten per cent of school leavers got a university degree in those days and we were in demand, no matter our discipline or our marks. I received an ordinary degree, but no one seemed to care.
Ten per cent of school leavers got a university degree in those days and we were in demand, no matter our discipline or our marks.
My younger brother and sister, four and seven years younger than me respectively, had a different experience. By the time they finished school the days of readily available jobs had gone. They have both struggled to establish careers in a way their elder siblings have not. Us baby-boom tail-ender siblings are not more talented or hardworking. We were simply born at a luckier moment.
In the 1980s and 1990s, youth unemployment grew to unheard-of proportions – 270,000. Due to technology driving changes in the workplace, half the occupations for young men disappeared. For young women, the statistics were much worse: a terrifying two thirds of traditional jobs for young women (process work, clerical, secretarial, etc.) were simply wiped out.
The sun had set on the postwar boom, the chill had set in and parental anxiety began to grow. Globalisation led to the realisation that our children were at risk of being ‘left behind’.
Due to the increasingly competitive nature of their own workplaces, middle-class parents saw that their children were not just competing with everyone in their state – as I did back in 1974 – nor even with everyone in Australia. Their children were now competing for opportunities with everyone in the developed world. No wonder the popularity of the international baccalaureate began to increase exponentially, not to mention the attraction of private schools. Both seemed to offer at least some protection from the cold winds of international competition. Surely the old-boys network and the cachet of a famous school name could help their child gain an edge?
Parental anxiety has continued to escalate for almost four decades and we now have generations of children raised in an atmosphere of fear about the future. Anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication reflects the growth of this dread. Prescriptions for such medications rose by a staggering ninety-five per cent between 2000 and 2011.
This has led to much debate about whether they are being over-prescribed but surprisingly little discussion about why so many of us need medication to cope with everyday life. This increase is no doubt also linked with improvements in the efficacy of available medications and diagnosis. However whenever I ask audiences (and I do it routinely as a public speaker, all around Australia, in all kinds of sectors) whether ours is a society characterised by hope or by fear, they always, unanimously, choose fear.
Social researcher Hugh Mackay coined the term ‘age of anxiety’ back in 2003, and in 2016 it appears to be an age that shows little sign of abating, no matter how much our prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, reassures us that there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian. We’d like to believe him; we’re pleased he’s saying it (it makes a change), but we just don’t.
How can we, when everything conspires to make us afraid? Not just terrorists and climate change, or the (false) belief that there are paedophiles hiding around every corner waiting to pounce on our children. Such nightmares have their cumulative effect, no doubt, but I believe it is the emphasis on competition itself that is one of the major drivers of our anxiety.
It is no coincidence that those most in favour of any competition are those most likely to win.
How can it be otherwise? Competition by its very nature creates winners and losers. It is no coincidence that those most in favour of any competition are those most likely to win.
Competition as an end in itself has seen everyone become afraid, particularly for his or her jobs. Such fear has driven the increase in working hours over the last forty years, helped by technology that has made us all available 24/7. Full-time working hours had been reducing for a long time until the 1980s and 1990s, when they rose to forty-three hours (up from thirty-five). They’ve now settled to an average of forty- one hours. But we all know people working much longer hours than that.
What we are also seeing is a gap between the percentage of people who would prefer to work fewer hours – fifty per cent of workers according to Australia Institute research from 2010 – and those who would like to work more hours – twenty-nine per cent of workers according to the same research. Exhaustion naturally drives anxiety, and boredom drives depression, so both working too much and working too little affects our mental health. Perhaps this accounts for the astonishing rise in self-medication.
The fashion among major employers to ‘downsize’ and periodically get rid of huge swathes of workers has also – of course – driven anxiety and insecurity. No wonder half the workforce is spending more time at work than they would like. They are doing whatever they can to hold onto their jobs. If and when they lose their grip, some enter the ranks of the thirty per cent of workers who are under- employed.
When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, many people still expected to work for the same employer for their whole lives. This does still happen, but it is increasingly rare and these days a long career usually ends with the slammed door of redundancy rather than the warm glow of the gold watch.
Those of my peers who did spend decades with the same employer have almost all been made redundant in the last five years. Many have relished the change and become consultants, turning their years of experience into a tradeable commodity; some have started their own businesses. But far too many are unemployed or under-employed, and would jump at the chance to keep using their skills. Some – who can afford to – have given up altogether and officially retired, far earlier than they had expected.
This blind belief by corporations that cutting large numbers of workers is essential for productivity is also why almost all of us – despite our prosperity, our luxurious lives (in comparison to previous generations) and our increasing longevity – are so afraid.
Even if you are not fired in the latest restructure (some companies seem to no sooner finish one restructure than start another), watching everyone around you tearfully pack up their desks does not engender confidence in the future. I know the stock market routinely reacts favourably when a listed company announces that thousands of workers are to be cut, but I have never quite understood how firing your consumers can ever be a good economic strategy.
Since many of those who get culled are older workers, it should be no surprise that the old are also suffering from the consequences of anxiety. Many older women, in particular, are staring down the barrel of a penurious old age.
Below is an extract (quoted with permission) from a long and desperate email I received while writing this article. My sixty-three-year-old correspondent was trying to get someone – anyone – to take notice of the future she and many of her peers now find themselves facing:
We are a group that consists of isolated, weary, despairing persons who are running on that treadmill trying to keep a roof over our head. Older single women who keep getting up and getting on with it […] worked as much as possible, unpaid assistants to partners, helped raise children […] often becoming single parents[…] being responsible as much as possible.
We have different stories to tell as to how we got here, but here we are […] on the precipice of poverty and homelessness. Some have already fallen over the edge.
The largest group of people on the single age pension are women because they tend to live longer. Many are the women who didn’t get higher education or develop marketable skills because they were told their destiny was to work for a few years, get married, have kids and live happily ever after.
Whatever lip-service we may now pay to the right of women to work, those pressures remain.
They weren’t just told that, by the way: huge moral, economic and practical pressures were placed on young women to vacate the workplace once they had children – and most of us did just that, at least in the short term. And, whatever lip-service we may now pay to the right of women to work, those pressures remain.
What a Faustian bargain women are forced to make: we must put up with short-term financial problems (cost of childcare, loss of family-tax benefits, not to mention moral disapproval and – that old chestnut – exhaustion), or suffer a lifetime financial hit due to interrupted working patterns. As my desperate correspondent indicates, the fastest growing group among the homeless – albeit from a very low base – are women over the age of fifty-five.
The second group most impacted by the epidemic of fear are the young. Not least because they have grown up with parents who are themselves riddled with anxiety.
The dual messages this generation of young people has received is that they are most important and special (otherwise why all the fuss?) and yet fragile too. Not all of this fear is unnecessary, however. If you come from a family that is not among the ‘winners’, you are under no illusions about the insecurity of your position. Here’s another extract from that email, about my correspondent’s son and his attempts to improve his lot in life:
Last year, at twenty-five years old, one of my sons decided he needed to get on with studies to be a high school English teacher who wants to teach students to think for themselves, question information they come across and stop being ignorant about the world. He is working full-time as a concrete labourer when he can get work, and studying full-time. My situation doesn’t allow for me to help with accommodation or finances. Because of having to work full-time as much as possible, his marks are in the seventies instead of nineties as he doesn’t have the time and energy to prepare to his ability.
Much as there appears to be a fashion among some of our political leaders to see poverty as a moral failing and to demonise those at the bottom of the economic ladder, the growth in the working poor is sending another terrifying message to the young. They are expected to put up and shut up – a demand never issued to my generation.
My correspondent’s son wants to teach students to question authority. But one thing a population consumed by anxiety will not do is ask uncomfortable questions. A university education used to be about teaching students to think critically. This is no longer the case, which is understandable given that twenty-six per cent of young graduates in Australia, according to Suman W. Chohan in a recent article in the Conversation, are now considered to be ‘under-utilised’. A fancy word for under-employed, I suspect.
But, despite the odds, some of the young are persevering. In my capacity as a conference MC and speaker, I see a lot of sectors up-close and personal. And what I am seeing is increasingly unhealthy competition between the old and the young.
The young are having to jump through many hoops to get and keep good jobs. It has been a sellers’ market for a very long time. Those who succeed are the ‘winners’, but they still never seem to be able to stop jumping. They have studied hard, obtained high marks, been accepted into prestigious and demanding courses at high-status universities. They have taken on large HECS debts. They have delayed gratification in ways my generation would never have contemplated, such as forgoing partying to ensure good marks and delaying leaving home because they can’t afford to live away due to an accumulating HECS debt.
And when they graduate at last? They often find they are employed on very low salaries yet expected to work extremely long hours. This is called ‘paying their dues’, and if the young complain (and I have witnessed this firsthand), they are sneered at for having an overblown sense of entitlement. (I am not sure that sixteen hours a day for the minimum wage equals a sense of entitlement.)
All this if they are lucky enough to even get a graduate job soon after university. Many young graduates work for months, sometimes even years, for nothing as interns in an attempt to find their way into the profession of their choice. Others are employed as casuals or on contracts or as temporary staff, and this can go on for a decade or more. Even relatively low-paid professions like teaching are notoriously difficult fields in which to secure a full-time, permanent job.
How do you buy a house, have a child, or begin to accumulate the assets that just might see you avoid a penurious old age if you can’t get a proper job?
Some of the young are reacting against having every drop of their energy squeezed out of them for the vague promise of better times ahead. (A promise that rings particularly hollow if they are also watching older workers being unceremoniously dumped.) Some are taking jobs for a few years, working until they drop, saving their money, resigning and then travelling. Then they return and start the whole cycle again.
Fun while it lasts, maybe – but how exactly is this peripatetic lifestyle going to protect them when they are no longer a young and desirable (in the job-seeking sense) thirty-three, but an old and weary sixty-three?
In Australia we have older people who are desperate for work. For some it is to keep a roof over their heads, for others because it means they can continue to contribute and stay connected to the world.
We have many young people (the ‘losers’) who are also under-employed. Yet we are squeezing the life-blood out of the others. And who is benefitting? What is the point of being the most prosperous society the world has ever seen if most people are not enjoying it?
If all prosperity does is create anxiety and winners (who are just managing to keep their heads above water) and losers (who are often just winners who have gone under), all the while driving obesity, depression, anxiety and despair, what good is it?
Here’s an idea. Let’s lower working hours for the exhausted fifty per cent and hire some of the twenty-nine per cent who’d like to work more to pick up the slack. People with a little more leisure time can be better parents, exercise more and can spend more time (and money) enjoying themselves. Others feeling more secure, particularly about their old age, can do the same.
Instead of pitting the generations against each other as if life was a zero-sum game, let’s get them working together. Perhaps you can put an old head on young shoulders or teach an old dog some new tricks.
Surely it’s worth a try?